Thursday, October 14, 2021

Perfect Circle by Sean Stewart

I have a cynical opinion: for most of us, no matter how good we are, careers last about ten years. It applies to the artists we love and the lives we live equally. That band will probably break up after a decade; that writer will put out novels dependably until the second digit of the year changes. And your job will be happy with you right up to the point where they aren't, and at that point the industry will have changed enough that you have to leap into something else.

Maybe fifteen. I'll give you fifteen.

Of course, the superstars are the exceptions, as they are in everything else. They're the ones who make it seem like doing the same thing well for a lifetime is not just possible, but normal. But it's only normal for them, and we're not them. (Or maybe you are. Are you a superstar?) They're big and well-known and seem central, so it can be hard to realize how few of them there are, and how their path isn't open to the rest of us.

I think about that a lot when I realize a great writer hasn't had a solo novel since 2004, and that his first novel was in 1992. And maybe I think that he basically invented the "artificial-reality game" genre around 2001, and I haven't heard much about that for years, either. So I wonder what his current career is, how it's treating him, and I hope he's enjoying it.

In this specific case, the writer is Sean Stewart, and the book is Perfect Circle. (He did write other things afterward: lots of things for games and other interactive experiences, and he co-wrote a YA trilogy that was published in book form but apparently also had ludic elements.)

Frankly, it's heartbreaking that this was his final novel of fantastika. It is a short but essentially perfect book: emotionally resonant, intensely told, thoroughly felt, and deeply human. In a better world, it would have broken Stewart out to a wider audience and launched him onto bestseller lists. But the whole point of Perfect Circle is that this is not a better world - it's only as good as we make it, and we have to share it with people making it worse.

Some of them don't even stop after they die.

This is a novel about ghosts: both the literal and the metaphorical kind. Will "Dead" Kennedy is a slacker who made it to his early thirties without accomplishing much: he has a broken marriage with Josie and a tween daughter Megan, he has a lousy apartment and a succession of basic jobs, he has a love for punky, alternative music and not much energy for anything else. He can also see ghosts, and maybe that's the reason for some of his other issues, or vice versa.

He resents his ex-wife's second husband Don, an ex-Marine who has a good job with a future and provides Will's daughter with the life Will can't. He's resigned to the complicated lives of his big Houston-based family, but mostly skims around the edges of things. He's lost the one great love of his life and can't move on, a decade later - though he might be confused as to who that was. He's settled into a groove in his life and, just maybe, is starting to look around and realize he's not in his twenties anymore and that groove is turning into a trench.

Or maybe not. Maybe he doesn't realize anything, or want to change.

Will is our first person narrator: he has an engaging, open voice, one instantly familiar to any Gen X man (and probably most men and women from other generations). He's our main character: he's going to tell us what happens. He's going to explain what he sees, and tell us about the ghosts in his world: his own, most of all, but the others as well.

I won't say he's our hero. Will is haunted, in ways that he doesn't understand and can't directly tell us. This is a novel about how he's haunted, and what haunts him, and how, as always in fiction, things get worse before the end. Perfect Circle is a novel of events, but it does not have a deep plot: it's all driven by Will, and the things he does and choices he makes and ghosts that influence him. And he will get much deeper before the end.

Stewart's conception of ghosts here has some elements in common with Tim Powers, though Stewart's ghosts have more agency. They're dead, and possibly trapped, but they seem to still be themselves. Some of them can talk to the living, some of them have good or bad intentions, some of them can communicate in other ways, but many of them seem to be caught up in whatever killed them - there aren't obvious rules, but they feel realistic and real.

Again, this is a great, resonant, thoughtful, deep book. In a just world, it would have been nominated for and won awards, as several of Stewart's earlier books were. But ours, like Will's, is a world of ghosts, a world where bad things happen because people do bad things, where careers and people die.

And maybe Stewart's novel career is definitively over, or maybe this is just a hiatus. But the thing about novels, and about art in general, is that they exist once they're made. They don't stop. You can read a novel today, or tomorrow, or ten years from now. It will still be there.

Just like a ghost.

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